Mapping dirty London

In the past couple of months I’ve been able to combine work and my mapping hobby, working on a web site about air pollution in London. I’m going to be speaking about this at the October geomob meeting.

I’m lucky enough to live in one of Europe’s most polluted cities. Air pollution causes more early deaths than obesity and road collisions, and is only bested by smoking. The Mayor published some really good open data on pollution levels, which of course is incomprehensible to ordinary folk. So despite having a sense that it’s not the cleanest city, Londoners don’t know all that much about the problem or how it could be solved. We want to help change that.

Our first splash was a map showing the quantities of some major pollutants dropped on sections of roads across the capital, so Londoners could find out – how polluted is my road?

Mapping dirty London

Lots of people loved that. The GLA’s GIS team did the mapping part, using our Ordnance Survey license and data to match pollution data up to ITN road sections. They also produced league tables for each borough, which we sent round to all the local papers. The Guardian featured it on their homepage and TimeOut blogged about it, driving many thousands to have a look.

Next, I checked a list of schools known to be within 150m of heavily polluted roads – there being strong scientific research to suggest a link between that proximity to pollution and higher rates of asthma in children. Currently there are estimated to be 1,148 schools suffering from this problem., revealed through fantastic work by the Campaign for Clean Air in London. We’ve mapped these, so you can see if your school is affected. This was really easy – turn the schools into GeoJSON and stick them into a Leaflet map, using the markercluster plugin to make it usable when zoomed out.


That wasn’t very difficult, but I think the map tells the story well – that this problem affects schools all over London, not just in the centre.

I’ve now been able to do some of the GIS work myself, and what fun it was! I’ve never had much call to really use Quantum GIS, but it’s a wonderful tool.

I was able to take raster files showing nitrogen dioxide concentrations across London from the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory 2010, vectorise them, and filter them to find areas where levels were above legal limits. With this, I can then play around with other open data to see what lurks in areas suffering from illegally high levels of air pollution.

Mapping dirty London

Areas of London expected to exceed legal limits for the annual average concentration of nitrogen dioxide in 2020. For context, London was supposed to be under these limits in 2011 in order to comply with a European Directive introduced a decade ago.

My first experiment was to clip this to London’s road network. I used the Overpass API to extract all the roads from OpenStreetMap (for some reason I can’t connect to OSM-GB at work of late). From this I was able to determine that in 2020, around 45% of London’s main road network is still expected to exceed legal limits. Nasty!

I was also able to determine that in seven years time, there will still be 928 schools near to heavily polluted roads. So thousands of young Londoners will spend their whole time in primary school breathing in illegally high levels of air pollution.

I then started to think: where do I go that means I’m next to main roads for long periods of time? Pubs, cafes, bus stops, parks. Well, these are all in OpenStreetMap as well!

I started with bus stops, because we have a pretty comprehensive dataset there after the NAPTAN import. I did all the GIS analysis, producing tables of data for boroughs and the like. But it was only when I used Maperitive to produce tiles for a slippy map that it struck me – there are still LOTS of duplicate nodes where someone has manually added the bus stop years ago, then we imported the NAPTAN stop. So actually OpenStreetMap is a completely useless source for bus stops.

I got around this by just downloading the original NAPTAN data and using that instead. But it’s a shame because NAPTAN is really inaccurate. Where OpenStreetMappers have added bus stops, or manually checked NAPTAN stops, the locations are much more precise. It would be great if we could try to clean this data up to remove duplicates. Perhaps over the winter meetups, Harry?

With this, I produced a snazzy web page showing info on London in 2020.


I haven’t tried pubs and cafes because our coverage is so patchy. One day there may be enough contributors for OpenStreetMap to have a really excellent geodatabase of these features. What an amazing resource that will be! Though I wouldn’t want to be put off some of my favourite pubs.

One final step I didn’t take was routing. I’d really like to see somebody integrate the pollution data with a routing engine, to try and find reasonably direct walking and cycling routes that keep you off the most polluted roads. I blogged about this last year, and I still think it would be both cool and genuinely useful.

My friend Robert also suggested a routing engine where the polluted roads are off-limits, and tiles without those roads drawn. Getting around today without using those roads at all would make for an interesting challenge!

All of this work has had quite an impact. Take this cutting from my local paper:

It was also the top story on BBC London News for the whole of Wednesday when Jenny Jones AM questioned the Mayor about our findings:

Now we just need to fix the problem.

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On migration, population and ecology

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently took a strong stance on migration, warning of the dangers that the other parties risk when stoking up public anger about population. She rightly suggested that we shouldn’t blame migrants for problems with the NHS, schools, housing and jobs. Instead, we should be concerned about the failure of misguided economic policies that have caused these problems.

In response, three members of the Green Party wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that they, and many other Greens, are concerned about migration as well as the nasty rhetoric. The authors of the letter wrote:

Many of her party’s supporters are as concerned as the rest of the public about a high level of net immigration, mainly because it is a major contributor to population growth. This adds to the uphill task of protecting our environment and moving the economy to an ecologically sustainable one.

A long list of Greens replied with “dismay” at this letter, and Adam Ramsay wrote his own letter accusing the three authors of the first letter of “demonstrating an outdated 70s environmentalism obsessed with population while ignoring vast inequalities in consumption levels”.

The debate continued with a reply from some members in Devon, who countered:

To be concerned with the impact that world population rising to 9 billion people has on resource availability, pollution, climate change etc is not to be locked in a 1970s time warp. It may have ceased to be the number one issue for some greens, but in terms of the long-term damage to our planet as a habitat for all species, it remains at the forefront.

I want to address this point alone, because it hits a controversial nerve in the Green community. Does population really matter? Should we restrict migration to protect our environment?

I should say that I am not an expert on migration or population, but I have worked for seven years in the connected areas of housing and environment policy. The three authors of the first letter ask us to “read the statistics” in order to pursue “open and honest debate”. I quite agree! So that is what I hope to do in this article.

Does population matter at the global level?

One common starting point is to view our impact on the rest of the natural world as a simple function of our affluence, our technology and our population. We can bring human society more into harmony with the rest of nature by wanting less, improving our technology to get more out of the resources we consume, and by reducing our population.

Life is never quite that simple, of course. How much each person impacts on the rest of the natural world is also a function of our political and economic systems. The “population doesn’t matter” lobby suggest that it is inequality and rampant consumerism that matters, not the total population. They seem to suggest that if we were all more equal and all reduced our impacts, without those rich bankers trashing the planet, then it would be perfectly possible to accommodate nine or ten billion people and lead healthy, happy lives.

So can we really ignore the population factor in these equations? I don’t think we can.

In my previous job at BioRegional I worked a lot with ecological and carbon footprinting, particularly drawing on the technical work of the Global Footprint Network, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change.  Their work tells us that if everyone lived as the average Briton does we would need three planets’ resources to sustain us, and ten times the capacity of the planet to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions.

But it’s not just mega rich bankers in mansions that are living unsustainable lifestyles. Yes, there are vast inequalities in consumption levels, but we are all consuming too much.

One of the projects I worked on at BioRegional was the BedZED eco village in south west London, built to high standards and designed to make it easy for residents to adopt lower impact lifestyles.  Through a monitoring project I worked on, we found that after seven years living there the working class (social tenancy) residents were still living unsustainably. If everyone in the world lived as they did, we would need 2.6 planets’ worth of resources. Their greenhouse gas emissions were also far above a sustainable level.

Blaming it all on consumerism, or assuming we can quite easily get to a sustainable level with a high standard of living, is just burying your head in the sand. If you work in this area for any amount of time, you quickly realise that reducing our environmental impacts to a truly sustainable level is really hard.

Joel Cohen, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, has compiled lots of research by other academics on the question of how many people the earth can support. Most estimates were in the range of one to sixteen billion. What would those different populations mean? The Worldwatch Institute has estimated that we could sustain a global population of 2.1 billion with a “high income” of $36,000 per capita (lower than the US average), or a population of 13.6 billion with a “low income” of $1,230 per capita. It’s worth reflecting on the changes we’d need in the British economy to enable 13.6 billion people to live on an income that is only 5% of a current UK living wage.

Our global population may well peak within this century, rising to 10 billion. If this happens we would each have an allowance of less than a tonne of carbon dioxide. This figure comes from unpublished work done while I was working at BioRegional. As with much of the detail on climate change it is subject to a huge degree of uncertainty – some would say it’s overly pessimistic, others think we should already have negative carbon footprints (i.e. we should be zero carbon and start taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere).

Let’s assume your allowance is in fact under one tonne, as per that work undertaken by colleagues at BioRegional. Let’s also assume that we make big strides towards a renewable electricity grid, and our technology improves as much as we might reasonably expect over the next fifty years. Well that one tonne isn’t even enough to cover the greenhouse gases required for your share of our country’s basic infrastructure – that is, if we divide up the resources needed to run our hospitals, schools and trains, and to build our roads, homes and council offices between everyone so we carry an equal share. It certainly doesn’t leave you with any of your allowance for heating your home and taking the occasional holiday to Cornwall by train. Read this study of London’s footprint to see what I mean. Sustainable lifestyles with a global population of 10 billion, without some incredible new technology, would be hugely challenging and materially impoverished.

If the population stabilised at 5 billion, our allowance would rise to around two tonnes, making it conceivable that with improved technology we could take that one annual British holiday – still materially far poorer than the average Briton today. In terms of other ecological impacts, the consumption of other natural resources would most likely leave almost no space for wildlife and wilderness.

It’s also relevant to know when the population stabilises. If it were to stabilise tomorrow, then fall consistently for the rest of the decade, that suggests a far smaller release of greenhouse gases and a far smaller consumption of natural resources in the 21st century than a population stabilising in 2050 and remaining high to the end of the century.

Now, it is a big step to go from recognising that population is relevant to then advocating population reduction policies. But we have to face up to two truths: first, that the larger the population, the greater the challenge our technology and politics must overcome; and second, that at some point, without radically new technology, a human population surpasses the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Is migration relevant to this?

The problem for the authors of the first letter (showing concern about migration) is that it clearly shouldn’t concern us whether somebody lives in the UK or Romania when tackling global environmental problems.

If they have the same lifestyle, it makes no difference to the atmosphere where their carbon emissions arise (and indeed much of our impact arises from global supply chains anyway).

It’s possible that migrants move from less affluent countries to the UK, and become more affluent than they would otherwise have been. So their environmental impact rises, making the task of “protecting our environment” more difficult. But I believe it is unjust to move to an ecologically sustainable economy through nationalistic discrimination. We shouldn’t say “you can’t come and enjoy our lifestyles”. We have to find an equitable way for us all to enjoy a decent quality of life within the planet’s constraints. The Green Party’s longstanding commitment to the principle of contraction and convergence  would be undermined if we sought to protect our own affluence and suppress that of others.

Does population matter at the local level?

I’m going to take Greater London as my “local” scale, only because it’s a region I’m knowledgeable about, I live here, have been involved in politics in the city and have suffered the effects of our dysfunctional housing market. It’s also an interesting case study because the population is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.

If we were to assume high net international migration – lots of people moving from abroad into London – this does present dilemmas. I will explore one  local environmental dilemma – the impact of housing on other species’ habitats – though there are many others such as waste, water and air pollution. I’m not going to explore the impact of population on social policy, such as the provision of health care and housing.

I wrote in a previous blog post about the role of migration in London’s housing market in order to debunk the idea that London is sucking people from the rest of the UK. It isn’t. But international migration has been a major contributor to the city’s rapid growth in the past decade. This chart shows that two factors are pushing up our population: more people move from overseas into London than the other way around; and many more “new households” are formed (births, divorces, etc.) than are dissolved (deaths, moving in together, etc.). It also shows that many more people move out from London to the rest of the UK than the other way around – Londoners are fleeing the capital!


One stark conclusion I drew in my previous blog post is that, if the population keeps rising like this, we simply have to build more homes. Read the post if you don’t believe me.

Now, the last assessment of land to build homes on carried out in 2009, looking in all of Greater London’s nooks and crannies for brownfield land, allowing a tiny bit of development on greenfield land and assuming optimal urban densities, only found space for around 37,000 homes per year at a stretch. But the Green Party on the Assembly has already found that these assessments don’t take proper account of the habitats on brownfield land, which can be among the most biodiverse sites in the city. Green roofs and walls are nice, but they cannot compensate for the loss of all habitats for all species. So building 37,000 homes a year will already have a negative impact on our local environment.

The Mayor of London now estimates that we need an extra 40,000 homes to be built every year to keep up with the growing population. Our failure to get anywhere near this in the past decade has led to rising overcrowding. Darren Johnson has dug out estimates that we would need to build 44,500 a year if supply was our only way to stabilise prices. So if we want to build another 7,500 a year on top of the 37,000 we might have space for where will they all go? We can either build at higher densities, or we can encroach further on other species’ habitats, including greenfield sites.

So it may be uncomfortable, but the fact is that migration matters when it comes to protecting our local environment. If we had zero net migration, or if we had a lower birth rate, it would be much easier to accommodate ourselves with the rest of the natural world in Greater London.

However, as with global migration, we have to consider justice when deciding what we do with this fact. Do we restrict entry to the UK to protect our local environment? Or do we open our borders completely and accommodate whoever chooses to live here?

We also need to think beyond our local boundaries. To take Romania as an example, being topical because the rules restricting migration to the UK are about to be relaxed, what habitat impacts in Romania are avoided when people move from Pitești to London? Might it be easier to develop an ecologically sustainable economy with a growing population in Pitești than in London? Or is the reverse true? Perhaps it would be better if people move to London, a compact city with falling car usage, or perhaps it would be better if migrants from all corners of the world settled in parts of the UK with large quantities of empty housing? These questions go far beyond my expertise of Romania or any other country, but they shouldn’t be forgotten!

Population matters, but migration doesn’t (much)

My own take on this, going by the facts and the Green Party’s guiding principles, is as follows: population definitely matters, at both a global and local level. Some may want to dismiss this as “outdated 70s environmentalism”, but I have arrived at this conclusion after working with the latest understanding of ecological and carbon footprinting.  There is nothing racist or xenophobic about it. Higher global populations make an ecologically sustainable global society much more difficult, and past a certain point impossible.

But migration shouldn’t really be a major environmental concern at a global level because it probably makes a negligible difference. Insofar as migration increases affluence, this is not a just reason to oppose migration.

At a local level, environmental pressures shouldn’t be so great a concern that, taken alone, they wholly validate the public’s concerns about migration. Pressures on habitats, and perhaps on water, waste management and pollution, are major considerations that we cannot simply dismiss. But if I am honest, at this point I have exhausted my expertise. I instinctively feel that we should be able to accommodate the free movement of labour within a more equal Europe, and to reconcile mass migration with any resulting local environmental pressures. But I am not certain that this is possible, nor am I confident about how to balance these competing demands on public policy.

Finally, this is just my view on one aspect of wide and complicated debates. I’d encourage you to read and think about this subject more, and discuss it. For example, here is an interesting article suggesting that liberal migration policies help people affected by climate change to adapt. Here’s another by Violeta Vajda reminding us that immigration is about human experiences as well as bare facts. I think it’s a shame that the tone of debates such as this can quickly turn nasty, with people seeking to shut down debate and insult each other rather than to seek understanding and consensus.

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Ignoring the carbon deficit

Here’s another message I have sent to the Today programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4. For readers unfamiliar with the programme, it is the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs programme. But the substance of this message is an all-too-frequent problem with their coverage.

Unlike my last complaint, I just sent this one in as feedback. I didn’t feel it merited a formal complaint. If I get a reply I will post it below, as before.

Regarding the item on npower’s report on energy prices, I was disappointed that the questioning seemed to ignore or underplay the urgency of decarbonising our energy supply.

You rarely question the assumption that we must close the fiscal deficit, which is an economic construct and a subject much debated by economists. Yet you are happy to entertain the idea of ignoring our carbon deficit, which is a scientific fact beyond debate with 97% of scientific papers agreeing on it.

Just as you challenge Labour politicians to explain how they would balance the fiscal books, you should be challenging Conservative politicians and energy companies to explain how their policies will reduce carbon emissions in line with the requirements of the Climate Change Act.

Why isn’t the Green Deal delivering the energy demand reductions we need to meet climate change targets and offset bill rises? Why do we still have such poorly insulated homes? What is the cost to business of inefficient buildings? What is npower doing to drive down the costs of new energy infrastructure?

Instead, the questioning led on whether we should drop low carbon policies.

Just imagine if you led with Osborne on whether he should ignore the fiscal deficit, instead of debating how best to close it – growth or cuts!

Fingers crossed!

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Getting enthusiasts into OpenStreetMap

I started writing this as an email to Richard Fairhurst, but then thought I’d post it to my blog. I wrote something on a similar theme just over a year ago.


I just wanted to say that I thought your talk at the SOTMUS conference was spot on.

But when you talk about the cycling community, I think there’s an important caveat missing. Lots of people in our mapping community (or lots of the 5% who do 95% of the mapping) are enthusiastic cyclists, but few in the enthusiastic cyclist community are mappers.

I’ve not come across the London Cycling Campaign or any of the borough groups really getting involved with cycle mapping. Some members (myself included) do, but my impression is that most don’t. Despite embedding CycleStreets on their homepage and collaborating on a cycle parking campaign with them, I’ve never come across a big concerted push from LCC and local borough groups to contribute to OpenStreetMap beyond the odd mention in their magazine [edit: and a two-page spread]. The same was true of Andy’s great DfT data project. To this day, coverage of cycling infrastructure in London is patchy (although far better than any online alternative).

The same goes for lots of enthusiast communities. You’re right that a lot of people map the thing they’re enthusiastic about. But not many communities organised around those enthusiasms get mapping.

I’ve tried, here and there, to talk enthusiastic people round to OSM. I’ve talked to community campaigners I know involved with cycling, walking, food growing, trees, transition towns, vegetarianism, housing and school catchment areas. All benefit from mapping; some do it themselves with varying degrees of proficiency, usually with pen and paper, Powerpoint slides or Google Maps. But the technical hurdles of using OpenStreetMap (and in some cases simply the effort of mapping) often seem to outweigh the benefits they’d really get from the results.

After a chat over some tea or beer I have to send interested people half a dozen links to different web sites that provide the editor, the not-very-usable tutorials, the place to find tags that aren’t presets, the way to go about inventing new tags if necessary, the custom renders (often a mix of ITO and other third party sites), the way to see recent changes in your area that is actually usable, the quality controls to check your work, the places to ask for help, the other people doing similar work in London and how to discuss it with them, the inspirational examples, and so on. The diversity of web sites and tools is a strength of OpenStreetMap, but it’s also terribly confusing and it can be hard to discover the tool you’re after. Often there simply aren’t tools there to do what they want, and they don’t have the skills to roll their own nor the money to pay someone to make them.

It’s too confusing and complicated. Usually the payback isn’t enough, so they don’t even start, or give up shortly after their first dabble with an editor.

So… your idea of a community page is excellent. It could help to create a central focus for people with the same enthusiasms, saving me the effort of compiling all those links and making everything seem terribly disjointed. It will take a few bricks out of the wall holding communities back from contributing to OpenStreetMap.

Here’s my extension to your idea that seems technically within our grasp since Potlatch 2/iD and the Overpass tool. Make it really simple (a few clicks in a web-based tool) to set-up a hub for your niche interest: a community page bringing everything together, a custom editor with the appropriate presets, a nice map showing the results, data extracts (kml, json, shp), and code snippets to display the results on your own web site. You like Welsh chapels? Spend half an hour on this web form and bob’s your uncle.

As another hapless arts graduate with big time commitments to the Green Party, I don’t have the skills or time for this. I’m left cobbling together halfway-decent sites like OpenEcoMaps to try and fill a niche. It would be wonderful if the more technically gifted folk could make this a priority to turn more enthusiasts into the 5%.


My complaint to the BBC

The BBC broadcast a report today by Roger Harrabin entitled “has global warming stalled?“. You can follow the link to listen to the piece. I don’t often submit formal complaints, but I think the framing of the issue is so important that I submitted the following to the BBC complaints department.

I have two specific complaints in relation to your Today programme piece on climate science broadcast on the 17th May. The first is that the report used misleading language about recent developments in the science. My second complaint is that the report gave undue attention to a marginal opinion. Roger Harrabin’s report contained some interesting interviews, but the presentation was entirely misleading.

On my first, I believe it is misleading to suggest that the scientific establishment agrees that “global warming appears to have stalled” as he did in the opening segment.

The media, including Radio 4, covered a Met Office announcement in January by suggesting it showed global warming had stopped. The report was so misleading that the Met Office had to issue a statement.

The short-term fluctuations in the background temperature trend are well known, though as your report pointed out they are not yet fully understand. Carbon Brief produced a very useful summary of these issues back in January.

There are some scientists who have an optimistic view of future warming, believing it could still remain at 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. There are others who believe we are heading towards at least 4 degrees of warming. This uncertainty has been a feature of the scientific debate ever since the IPCC was set-up.

If Roger Harrabin is able to point to evidence of a growing consensus among scientists that global warming has stalled, I would be very interested to read it!

Second, in the BBC Trust’s 2010 review of impartiality and accuracy in scientific reporting, Professor Steve Jones made clear that the BBC was at times applying an “over-rigid” application of the editorial guidelines on impartiality, and giving “undue attention to marginal opinion”. The guidelines were revised around the same time to ensure that the BBC gives “due weight” in relation to impartiality.

A recent study found that 97% out of nearly 12,000 scientific papers agreed with the consensus position of anthropogenic global warming. This reinforced several other studies conducted in the past decade, which found a similar level of agreement.

So I believe that in this item you have given undue attention to an exceptionally marginal opinion of a poorly qualified blogger.

A more balanced and credible piece would have interviewed several scientists and climate policy experts about the implications of tipping over 400 ppm CO2, with a note of caution that, as in all complicated areas, nobody can be quite certain where in the range we will end up.

I won’t hold my breath. Carbon Brief have produced a much more sympathetic write-up of the piece on their blog. I agree that most of the segment was interesting and quite clear, but Harrabin’s opening suggestion – that scientists are now agreeing with sceptics that global warming has stalled – was a grievous misrepresentation.

Update – their response

I received the following response from the BBC:

Thanks for your contact regarding ‘Today’ broadcast on 17 May on BBC Radio 4.

I understand that you felt an item on the above edition of the programme was biased in favour of climate sceptics.

Whilst I appreciate your concerns, it’s firstly worth noting that Roger Harrabin’s report was simply one of many in relation to this topic. In addressing any wide ranging issue such as this, balance cannot be judged simply on the basis of individual reports, and consideration must be given to our overall reporting.

Indeed, the issue of climate change has been covered on numerous recent occasions by the BBC, for example:

Please be assured that we are committed to impartial coverage when it comes to this issue. That said, we don’t ignore the fact that there is broad scientific agreement on the issue of climate change and we reflect this accordingly; however, we do aim to ensure that we also offer time to the dissenting voices.

Nevertheless, please be assured that I’ve registered your comments regarding this issue to our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback made available throughout the BBC, including to programme producers, as well as members of senior management.

The audience logs help to shape future decisions regarding BBC programming and output.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.

I’m not really satisfied with the BBC basically saying “I’m not going to respond to your complaint about that specific programme because, look, we have all this other coverage too”. I’ll give a reply some thought… any suggestions gratefully received.

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My politics of ecology and justice

Following my previous blog post about the Young Greens and lots of discussion with friends and fellow party members, I want to set out clearly why ecology defines my philosophical basis rather than social and environmental justice.

To avoid misunderstandings from the outset, I think social and environmental justice are important, but they don’t define my political philosophy.

The new philosophical basis of the Green Party says:

A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet on which we depend, and encouraging reckless and environmentally damaging consumerism…. The Green Party is a party of social and environmental justice, which supports a radical transformation of society for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole.

This sounds great! What could be wrong with that? I hope I might persuade you why I don’t think it is quite right, or at least encourage more thought and debate about political philosophy and the precise meaning of different terms. Continue reading

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Who built all that housing in England?

A couple of years ago I included a chart of house building in a blog post arguing that young people shouldn’t necessarily support the removal of planning controls. The chart covered the period from 1955 to 2010, and showed that:

The only time  that the UK has seen house building match demand, and kept housing affordable, was when councils built in huge volumes from the 1950s to 1970s. If you think price bubbles are all about supply, explain the continued volatility of house prices through the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

People who want to see a massive expansion in house building can have their spirits dampened in other ways. Christopher Buckle from Savills wrote an interesting blog post suggesting that, on that house building data from the 1950s to the present day, a major boom looks very unlikely. He wrote:

If private sector housing delivery grew by 7.5% every year until 2017, a period of 7 years unbroken expansion from 2010, output would reach 133,000 new homes per year.  This would still be 10,000 new homes per year short of the average level of delivery seen over the 50 years prior to the credit crunch.  Such a sustained period of expansion has not been seen since the 1950s.

But the charts used by me and Buckle didn’t cover the 1930s, a time when private builders erected more than two million homes, almost twice as many as they managed in the 2000s and when the population was much larger.

Back to the 1930s

Those who think we need to tear up the planning system to solve our housing crisis often refer to the 1930s as a golden age. So I’ve produced a chart that goes all the way back to 1923 for homes built in England:

Who built all that housing?

I have had to combine two slightly different data sources for this. The period from 1923-1945 comes from  BR Mitchell’s Abstract of British Historical Statistics (which start in 1923), and the period from 1946-2011 from official government statistics (table 244) which also includes figures for housing associations. This is a bit naughty, but it’s the best I can do.

This shows that there was indeed an explosion of private sector house building in the 1930s, jumping from 144,505 homes in 1932 to 210,782 in the following year.

The role that councils played

But it also shows that councils were still a big force, a point made more clearly by this chart showing the proportion of the total homes built by housing associations, councils and private builders:


During the 1930s, councils still built a quarter of the homes. That rose to a whopping 73% in the 1940s (not surprising given there was a war on), 64% in the 1950s, and around 40% in the 1960s-70s. In 1997, the year Labour came back into office councils only built 0.2% of homes. Housing associations to some extent stepped into their shoes, but in the 1990s and 2000s they only built 14% of the homes.

Based on this data, and a lot of other reasons, I think there are three arguments for councils building more homes if we are to contain housing costs:

  1. These homes will be affordable to the tenants from day one, and in perpetuity, whatever happens in the market.
  2. In the twentieth century, the only periods during which we built enough homes saw a very significant role for council homes.
  3. Councils building more will expand the construction industry so introducing greater economies of scale and potentially improving skills.

A final note of caution

However, I wouldn’t want to say this is an open and shut case, nor deny I have other reasons for supporting council housing.

It is too easy to draw very simplistic conclusions, and to then make a tenuous connection in order to propose quite radical policies. This is what I think is happening with the romanticism about the 1930s suburbs.

There is a similarity between this debate and that of rent controls, in which we often make comparisons between the UK rented sector and Germany’s. It’s interesting that Germany has a very successful and highly regulated rental sector, and relevant given that Conservative, Labour and coalition governments since the 1980s have opposed those sorts of regulations. But there are many other differences between the countries. Similarly, there are many differences between the UK today and in the 1930s.

Can we have a major private housebuilding boom, as we had in the 1930s, regardless of Buckle from Savill’s gloom about the period from the 1950s to the present day? Brian Green wrote a good blog post in 2011 arguing that a 1930s housing boom seems unlikely. He wrote:

I sense a new romantic surge of interest in the notion of a private-sector-led house-building boom driving economic recovery. But… there were huge differences…

I’d recommend reading his post for his full list of reasons, I won’t quote them at length here. The gist is that in the 1930s you had a large number of new potential home buyers, plentiful cheap credit, low land costs, little demand from landlords and investors and a housing market that was very affordable. His conclusion:

It would seem that if we want a new house-building boom we will need a far more ingenious and powerful set of market prompts than promoting a greater availability of higher loan-to-value mortgages, freeing up planning and continuing to supply mortgages at low interest rates.

You can draw your own conclusions from the data I have presented, and the links to the articles by Buckle and Green.

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